Feature Article - January/February 2017

The Evolution of Event Marketing

It's the Experience That Counts

By Rick Dandes

The concept isn't new and has been going on for years: Reward and recognize your organization's top performers with an all-expenses paid trip to an exotic or tropical location. And while there, add to the recipient's reward with "room drop" or "pillow" gifts, intended to serve as lasting mementoes of a company's gratitude: high-end, brand-name products such as sunglasses, cameras or watches to be enjoyed and used during and after the trip.

But that was then.

Corporate gifting has evolved over the years to become much more than rewarding employees with a great trip and room gifts, said Brett Hatch, global senior director of corporate gifts, Maui Jim, Peoria, Ill. "Now it's all about the experience, where employers thank those top performers in a way they will never forget. And part of that experience is how those top performers receive their gifts. Some call it event marketing. But really, from a product producer's point of view, it is a method of rewarding recipients in a way that is personalized and memorable."

Hatch should know. He's universally recognized as the person who changed how people receive gifts at incentive travel events. Maui Jim, as a company, has been around since the 1980s, and in the early days you could only get their sunglasses in Hawaii. Hatch's idea to offer Maui Jim glasses through a corporate gifting incentive event came about almost by accident in 2000.

"I attended the ITME, The Motivation Show in Chicago that year," Hatch recalled. "I had taken over their special markets division, and was there from a merchandising standpoint, but at the same time there were meeting planners in attendance."

A representative from Washington Mutual who was familiar with Maui Jim said she wanted to give Maui Jim sunglasses out as a pillow gift at an event in Cancun.

Corporate gifting has evolved over the years to become much more than rewarding employees with a great trip and room gifts. Now it's all about the experience, where employers thank those top performers in a way they will never forget.

Instead, he counter-offered a personal touch. "All faces are different," he said. "We are all about service and we are a high-end brand. Glasses don't fit everybody, especially if you just throw it in a room. So, I said, 'How about if we go to that event and actually fit all the participants with a pair of glasses, giving them a choice of styles?' She agreed. I grabbed some account executives. We did the event, set up a table and personally fit 300 people. They went ballistic. I knew I was on to something."

Today, top performers expect gifts that are special, Hatch continued. "And if given in a way that the recipient would remember for years to come, it strengthens the bond between employer and employee."

Kevin Dougherty, director, Special Markets, Seiko Corporation of America, Mahwah, N.J., is one of a handful of professionals in the incentive industry who has taken Hatch's idea and run with it, offering similar experiences for participants, with timepieces as the gift that crowns the award experience. "The benefits lie within the experience," he said. "Incentive travel is based on hard work supplied by an employee. Now it's the employer's turn to thank and inspire them in a way they will never forget."

Who benefits from this? Everyone in the company, Dougherty said. The employee receives an incredible gift and experience, and now is inspired to achieve his next goal; the company becomes financially sound; and the corporate culture is healthy.

Execution & Ambience

No question, what is popular now is experiential gifting, said Scott Kooken, president of Links Unlimited, Cincinnati, Ohio. "We can provide a gift to whomever the attendee is at a corporate meeting," he said. "The gift can be any number of high-end products we have arrangements with. While doing the event, it's important to offer the recipient a choice. We go in with whatever products have been chosen, and we give them a chance to pick what they would like. Individualizing the gift makes for a better experience, we believe. Certainly, much better than when you go into your room and glasses, to use as an example, are there as a room drop. It might fit. It might not. The fact that we allow the process to be experiential—where the person gets to choose exactly what they want—takes that gifting experience to the next level."

Seek a partner that will give the brand the attention it deserved and will bring a world-class experience to the recipient—an experience that will leave people feeling like they just received an incredible gift.

This is what Maui Jim does. "My job is to ask questions like, How do I make that gifting experience even better? So we will personalize the sunglasses case. An example might be if you are from Microsoft and your top performers are going on an incentive trip anywhere in the world. You can get a personalized case from Maui Jim, a personalized cloth. But where our program has really evolved is that we are still the only company strictly using employees of our company at events. Many companies are using third-party contractors. We don't. You are getting the product from employees of the company. We have the scale, we have the team, we have the global capabilities, so it is the true brand experience."

Adrienne Forrest, vice president, Corporate Sales, Bulova, New York City, agrees that it's the interactive aspect of these gifting programs that makes corporate gifting really special. "People appreciate getting merchandise from a company that has high perceived value," she said. "Recognized and trusted brand names make perfect choices, because if someone gets a gift, they want it to be special and to be memorable. What we like to do at Bulova is work with the distributor or the company that is putting the event together and combine it with a cocktail event or registration, so that it becomes part of the entertainment."

Forrest added that Bulova calls their event marketing program 'Bulova Gift in Time,' … "and we make it like a shopping spree, almost as if someone is going to a jewelry store."

She added, "We can offer a wide array of sport or dress styles, ranging from under $100 up to $1,000. We set up a tray of watches, and prior to the event we work with the distributor to get as much information as we can: Who are the attendees? What are the demographics? Are they young or old? Men or women? The guests get to try on the watches. They get to pick which one they like, and then we package it in a gift box with a Bulova shopping bag."

The program adds to the excitement by hiring a jeweler to come on site who can size the watches and remove extra links right there, so there is instant gratification. The recipients can wear the watch during the rest of the event and take it home with them.